The Kainoi Stanzas
Strofa Uno: Gli Stagioni
(Stanza One: The Seasons)
Book Two: WINTER’S REQUIEM
"Good morning, colonel.” James shifted his staff. Peering through the cell’s bars and past the flawless bed on its left wall, he looked to the back, where Colonel Henry sat and faced away from him. Henry was silent. His grey shirt and pants, drab colors dulling from repeated use, washing, and reuse, matched the shade of the nascent fur creeping over his vulpine frame and reclaiming his marred flesh, while greyish-brown hair, though uneven along his scalp, crept towards his neckline. “I…” James paused as Henry’s shoulders rose, but, expecting Henry to speak, he found him silent. “I finished the last exam…I passed the class…” James looked to the cell’s front right corner, where a small clock faced Henry and ticked on. “I still needed the curve… The officer that took over for you_” The clock chimed. James stepped back and focused on that clock, while a door at the end of that nigh-empty cell-block was opened.
Stepping with a tray in hand was a blue-eyed goat of pale-white fur, perhaps in his twenties, dressed in plates of sterling armor over his long-sleeved green shirt and holding, on his white pants, a two-headed axe with a yard-long handle. “There’s the breakfast bell!” the goat howled as he stopped in front of Henry’s cell.
“Isn’t it early for breakfast, lieutenant?” James asked as the goat stopped beside him.
“Not for him!” the goat proclaimed. “Don’t you know what time it is?” He looked to Henry and nudged his chin. “He knows”, he continued. “It’s his favorite time.” He turned to James. “6:16, officer.” James pouted, while the lieutenant shoved the tray under the cell bars, with the plate of garlicky stew and slices of bread spilling atop each other before slapping into Henry’s stool. “It’s his favorite time; though twelve hours earlier.”
“Isn’t that…” James murmured as the lieutenant turned to him. “That’s rather inappropriate; don’t you think, sir?”
“Inappropriate”, the lieutenant hummed as he stepped to James, his 6'1" prominence towering over the 5'6" fox. “Methinks cavorting with a murderer like so is inappropriate.” The lieutenant nudged his chin, his small goatee wagging at James, and stepped back while looking to Henry. “Eat up, colonel. I only heated those leftovers enough to be warm for that minute. It’s 6:18 now; by 6:19, it’ll be as cold as your room at night, aye?” The lieutenant nodded to James and turned.
The lieutenant stopped, and James turned to Henry. “What was that?” the lieutenant inquired.
“It is still 6:17”, Henry replied, his words, though murmured, enunciated with a pensive caution. “Your clock is fast.”
“My clock is fast”, the lieutenant murmured, his jaws grinding, and his fingers pecking against his forearm’s plates. “My clock is fast, officer”, he spoke to James.
“Lieutenant”, James murmured. “He_”
The lieutenant thrust his hand through the bars, snatched the clock, and pitched. Henry neither tensed as it whistled by his side nor flinched as it shattered along the wall and rained along the floor. “Slow clocks”, the lieutenant growled as he yanked out a set of keys from his pocket. “I bet you know about slow clocks, and fast ones, and ones that pack a punch! I know how to pack a punch too, traitorous, murderous_!”
“Lieutenant!” James called as he grabbed the lieutenant.
“Back, officer!” the lieutenant growled as he swatted James to the floor. “Reheated rubbish meals are too good for scum like you, colonel!” the lieutenant howled as he inserted the keys and turned. “You shouldn’t have woken up; aye, colonel?!”
“Lieutenant Rizzo.” The lieutenant pouted as the door unlocked, and he looked past a gasping James and to the head of the cell block, where the blonde guinea pig stood with his halberd on his shoulder. “Close and lock the door, lieutenant”, the guinea pig spoke as he stepped. The lieutenant turned the key, yanked it out, and stepped back. With lips swelled and eyes red, he turned to the towering guinea pig and then looked to James pushing to his knees. “Is everything okay here, lieutenant?”
“‘Okay’, colonel?” Rizzo bawled. “Do you know what we buried? Do you know what was left of my grandfather after this monster incinerated him with forty-nine others?!” James gasped as he looked to the lieutenant, recalled the list of names of the deceased, and then recalled the old goat who had sat towards the Watering Hole’s front. “Nothing! His remains couldn’t be identified! We have his cane and what might be a horn!”
“Lieutenant”, the colonel spoke while walking, “I understand_”
“No, sir!” Rizzo blared. “No, you don’t! My grandmother lasted two weeks after! She said we could leave her alone, and we were stupid to believe her, and she lasted a fortnight before the sadness got to her! And what do we do now? We put him in a cozy cell and give him warm meals and let him have a trial?!”
“Lieutenant”, the colonel spoke. “He is many things; innocent until proven guilty is one; a person deserving of some respect and proper treatment is another.” Rizzo shook his head and looked to the ceiling. “Regardless of the heap of evidence against him, we will treat him properly. Do I need to transfer you to another watch?”
“Prove that to me”, the colonel replied as he patted the lieutenant’s shoulder. “Back to your office. I’m sure you have paperwork to complete.”
“Aye, Colonel Thompson.” Rizzo glanced to James and turned for the back of the cell block. James, then slack, glanced to Henry’s cell, to where Henry reached for the shattered clock face by his side.
James, after clearing his throat, looked to the guinea pig. “Thank you, colonel.” He strode for the cell block’s front, his eyes widened even as his heart slowed. After stepping through the sliding entrance and to the short intersection of dim halls, he turned, but stopped as the door opened behind him.
James looked back to Colonel Thompson holding his staff. “Right, sorry, colonel.” James grabbed his staff, turned, but was caught. He looked to his staff still held and he looked up to the colonel. The colonel released and stepped from the door to trigger its automatic close. “Is something wrong, colonel?”
“Has he said anything_?”
“No, colonel”, James interrupted while looking down. “But I hope_”
James looked to him with his head angling aside. “I don’t…” James held his tongue and looked about. “I’m not trying to interrogate him, colonel.”
“I’m not asking you to”, Thompson replied.
“But you want me…if he says something…you want me_?”
“Lieutenant Rizzo is correct”, Thompson replied. “You speaking to him so freely is inappropriate.” James inhaled, but the colonel raised his hand. “He let you live, officer. According to your testimony, he spared you when he did not have to. That, in my book, denotes kinship. You have a connection, and through that connection, you may be able to help us close his case and answer more of the questions that were presented after his capture.”
James breathed. With his staff held firm, he looked aside and, with a pout, he nodded. “Permission to leave, colonel?”
“Permission granted, officer.” James started down the hall. Thompson, after pressing his hand against the wall to trigger the door, stepped into the cell block and stopped at the desk in front of it. He looked down that straightaway as he sat, and he focused on Henry’s cell before pivoting about.
Henry, first listening to the glide of the colonel’s chair, lifted the battered clock-face and held its lifeless engine in his grasp. While holding his breath, he pressed his right fingers along the clock face’s perimeter. He grinned as an orange-red glow enveloped his fingertips, and he sighed as that glow bled into the engine. The clock ticked, and he exhaled.
While landing along one branch and feeling it lean, Drake inhaled, exhaled, and lunged, bolting to the next tree, landing, and then bolting to the following. Sliding and hopping through bare deciduous and bristly evergreen canopies, he pressed below that brightening sky and through bulges of lumbering fog. Over moments, he rose, ascending above the forest floor, rising in altitude from feet, to yards, to tens of yards before reaching the trees’ apexes. With one final lunge, he landed along the zenith of a pine and, while kneeling and gasping, looked northwesterly.
After breathing, the lynx stood, with his coat and his shirt, then layered in perspiration and dew, adhering to his back. He sniffed, and the odors of decaying leaves and melting frost filled his nostrils. He exhaled, and his breath, sliding in visible smoke, curled in front of him before dissipating. Drake, watching that smoke disperse, raised his right and closed his eyes. He perceived the breezes against the gap in fur from his right hand’s puncture wound, and he pinpointed the near-freezing temperatures not yet retreating from the sun’s reach. “Not me”, he sighed while looking to his breath and lowering his arm. He turned towards the horizon’s wavy slopes and its myriad trees protruding against clouds and mountainous silhouettes. Drake stared, slackening and, though balanced, swaying from breezes. He inhaled and closed his eyes, exhaled and grabbed his forehead. He opened his eyes as his ears straightened, and he tensed as a quieted knock sounded behind him.
Drake cartwheeled over a barreling Lieutenant Colonel Randolph, and landed as the deer slammed, antlers first, into the trunk. As the lieutenant colonel pushed and groaned, Drake, balancing on the tips of his toes, eased once more, looked northwesterly, but squinted at the ruffle of underlying branches.
“A fair attempt, lieutenant colonel!” Drake looked to Lieutenant Captain Mal standing below and, while wagging his tail, beside Lieutenant Captain Jack.
“But you had a good evasion as well, lieutenant captain!” Lieutenant Captain Jack added while closing his wings. Drake squinted, while the lieutenant captains grinned—with Lieutenant Captain Jack flaring his brow and gaping his anatine bill to perform the action.
“What was that?”
Drake turned to Randolph, his head covered in bark and his antlers sprinkled with pulp. “An evasion, lieutenant colonel”, Drake murmured as he looked northwest.
“Malarkey is what it is!” Randolph growled as he adjusted the plate of chest armor and stepped back. “You dodged!”
“I heard you coming”, Drake replied.
“No-o-o-o”, Randolph howled. “You don’t dodge! You haven’t dodged since right after you came back from your migration.”
“I learned from my mistakes”, Drake grumbled.
“Your guard’s up”, Randolph answered.
“What?” Drake grunted.
“You dodged because your guard’s up again”, Randolph replied. “Your guard was up when you came back, but it went down after a month. Do you know why?”
“I accepted you targeting me as a necessary trial.”
“Because you felt safe”, Randolph spoke.
“What?” Drake grunted.
“What’s wrong now? Why’s your guard up again?”
“My guard isn’t up, lieutenant colonel”, Drake groaned as he looked to the horizon.
“So if I were to have Captain Wallace shoot at you from behind?”
“Why—no!” Drake spun and flailed as he found Wallace one hundred yards back with his longbow fixed. “Please do not!”
“Don’t worry; the arrow would’ve been dull”, Wallace called as he lowered his bow.
Drake grabbed his forehead and turned to Randolph, whose eyebrows were raised. “Do you know what the grand master said?” he sighed as he looked northwest.
“The one who almost incinerated your subordinates?” Randolph inquired. “Since she’s the grand master of an avian Guild, I’d assume nothing worthwhile.”
“Hey”, Jack squawked from below.
“Pipe down; you were raised by dogs”, Randolph harrumphed. “Wait!” Randolph looked to Drake and followed his gaze. “Request denied!”
“What?” Drake grunted.
“You want to go part-time again!”
“I don’t”, Drake muttered.
“What about our promise of one year? It’s barely been three months!”
“I’m not planning on going part-time”, Drake mumbled.
“Then why, lieutenant captain, are you looking to your oh-so-great-and-feathery Guild’s direction?” Drake crossed his arms, and Randolph, while snarling, balled his fists. “Big-eared lemming, I will reinstate night ambushes if you don’t talk! No time or place will be safe from my antlers!”
“Why am I still here?” Drake groaned.
“Because you haven’t died yet”, Randolph answered.
“That’s not…” Drake rolled his eyes. “It didn’t matter that I was acting as an ARK officer; the grand master saw me and thought of me as her misaligned ally’s feline underling. She’s not the only one, is she?” Drake turned to Randolph. “You stationed me east to keep people from knowing about my past. It won’t matter if I request a new dunamis or throw away my coat, they’ll know me as a Guilds-beast masquerading as an ARK officer.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Randolph humphed.
“It’s not right…or…” Drake looked at his hands. “I’m more comfortable with clearing a factory of mobsters or charging headlong into arrow-fire—because I know where I can be struck without worrying about the pain being too debilitating—than writing reports, or giving the simplest orders, or helping some old sheep cross a bridge.”
“She wrote a letter saying that you did a good job and were very courteous”, Wallace called.
“Oh yes, you should read it; it’s in your file”, Randolph added. Drake stared before looking to the horizon. “You joined ARK first, if you don’t remember.”
“But ARK isn’t a lifetime membership, and breaking the rules here doesn’t usually warrant the loss of a limb”, Drake countered. “If I’m still a Guilds-beast, why not go back to acting like one?”
“Because you’re not wired for it”, Randolph suggested as he looked to the horizon. “I don’t think anyone is wired for the espionage, or assassinations, or the constant fear of spontaneous duels or spontaneous skirmishes; some just become calloused to it better than others.” Randolph looked to Drake but found him still. “Seven out of ten times, running from arrow-fire is the better thing to do, but for those other three times, when charging is the best or only choice, it’s the Guilds-beast who will have a handle of the situation. Yes, we’re constantly fighting off the urge to efficiently cut down anyone raising a blade or bow against us, but our different viewpoint, when skewed to align closer to ARK’s ethics, allows for a sometimes-needed way of evaluating situations.” Randolph scratched his chin.
“Every month or so, I encounter someone who has heard rumors of my past and calls me by my old moniker. It’s a reminder that no matter how much I do, I will still carry a slew of experiences that might make some beasts sick to hear about. I’ve simply chosen to take what I’ve learned from my time in the Guild to apply it to the now.” He looked to Drake and nodded, but Drake, still, looked out. “Do you know why I was promoted to lieutenant colonel?”
“You bribed someone?” Drake suggested.
“To give me a wider patrol range”, Randolph replied. “I’m Chesapeake’s Juggernaut—if someone or something ever threatens this area, all ARK will have to say is, ‘beware, for Randolph is under our authority and ready to charge if provoked’.”
“They don’t do that anymore”, Drake remarked. “It likely triggered the Narragansett Massacre and creates a ‘rule by might’ mentality. It’s also why they don’t pick commanders by physical ability.”
“It’s still an unspoken rule”, Randolph replied. “Despite the risks, having someone visibly strong does help as a deterrent. I’ll likely retire in twelve more years to receive Three-quarters’ tenure pay. That, coupled with the master’s stipend I still get from my Guild means I won’t have to work. When I do retire, Steven, or Scott, or Wallace, or, if they can take the sarcasm, Kevin, or, if they’re really desperate, you, will have to be the next juggernaut.”
“Great”, Drake mumbled.
“Do you know why I likely won’t be promoted anymore?”
“The bribery thing I mentioned?”
“They don’t like promoting former Guilds-beasts”, Randolph replied. “We’re graded harder because some are afraid that our bloodletting proclivities will stain our ability to lead a peacekeeping group. Maybe they’re right. Regardless, setting foot in both worlds is a balancing act, and one that you’ve come close to mastering—at least, closer than I.” Randolph looked out, while Drake squinted at him. “You came back from your migration a corporal. Despite your new allegiance and the rumors associated with it, you were promoted straight to lieutenant captain. As I’ve said before, if you hadn’t stagnated, you’d probably be a captain with a team by now. I think that means you’re doing something right at the least, aye?”
“Aye, lieutenant colonel”, Drake mumbled while looking out.
“And I also think that you can better learn to balance through running”, Randolph proclaimed.
“No”, Drake mumbled.
“A one hundred-mile patrol seems like a good warm-up for today, aye, lieutenant captains?!”
“No”, Drake repeated.
“Aye!” Lieutenant Captains Jack and Mal replied.
“What is my belief, lieutenant captains?” Randolph howled as he stretched his legs.
“If you’re not running or thinking about running, you’re dying”, Lieutenant Captains Jack and Mal replied, while Drake rolled his eyes.
“Tis true!” Randolph proclaimed. “Captain Wallace, come along!”
“Oh…yay”, Wallace grunted.
“On my mark!” Randolph bellowed. “Three!”
“That’s not how_” Drake silenced as Randolph dove into the canopy, and he looked down to the two lieutenant captains diving after him. Drake, as Wallace dove and ran after them, rolled his eyes and looked back.
“He’s not following, lieutenant colonel”, sounded from Jack.
“He just needs better motivation—Captain Wallace!”
“What?!” Drake spun and leaned as an arrow rose from the canopy and whistled by his head.
“That one was dull too!” Wallace called. Drake, with a growl, lunged southward.
“He’s running now but in the opposite direction!” Jack proclaimed.
“Well done, officers. At this rate we’ll have this quarry emptied by the end of the week.” Joseph flailed his head to whip the sweat-weighted hair from his face. While maneuvering along a ramp with two wheelbarrows behind his back, he looked to the officers leading that line, stumbling, kicking up marble dust, and gasping while the afternoon sun flashed along their armors. “Turn in for the afternoon, officers.”—Joseph looked to the ram at the top of that quarry and beside six beetle-driven carriages parked beside the tree line and loaded with pummeled stone, and he looked down, while the ram stared at a touch-screen.
As the officers in front of him, one by one, filled the carriages, Joseph held his breath and curled his wheelbarrows, hoisting them in sets of ten with each pace that he moved. After twenty minutes and with his arms sore, he stepped to the last carriage, shoved his wheelbarrows up the ramp, and overturned them to empty his loads. Then, while lowering his wheelbarrows, he looked to the twenty-foot-deep quarry, stopped, and looked away while the ram trotted past and called, “Good work, officer.”
“Thank you, sir”, Joseph murmured. He turned back and started for the quarry, while the ram stopped and spun to him.
Joseph stopped. While holding his breath, he looked to the ram beside him with arms crossed. “Is something wrong Captain Aspen?” Joseph inquired while dusting his pants and shirt.
“Of what am I about to be informed?” the ram inquired.
“Sir?” Joseph replied.
“That you’re trying to gain favor with me by doing work that is not required”, Captain Aspen continued.
“Nothing, sir”, Joseph replied. The ram stared. Joseph, after glancing from left to right, cleared his throat and turned to the quarry.
“Hold.” Joseph stopped. “Corporal Joseph, why are you doing quarry work?”
“Oh, you know”, Joseph replied.
“I do not”, Aspen answered.
“Just trying to build up my strength, sir”, Joseph replied. The captain stared. Joseph, after nodding, turned for the quarry and dragged his wheelbarrows along. The ram, scanning over him, locked onto his gauntlets.
Joseph stopped and closed his eyes. He looked back as the ram stomped to him and he released the wheelbarrows and crossed his arms, but the ram snatched his right. “Sir?”
“Your gauntlets are discolored”, Aspen spoke as he examined the stripes and spots of dulling grey along the cougar’s black hand-wear.
“The discoloration of age and experience”, Joseph reasoned. “It’s like they say, the greyer your hairs_”
“Your dunamis is eighty-percent-pure Logite, corporal”, Aspen spoke. “It should take years of regular use for even the dimmest signs of discoloration. I know how your gauntlets work. You’ve been reduplicating.”
“Sounds mathy”, Joseph remarked.
“You’re drawing energy from one glove, augmenting it, and concentrating it by channeling it through the other glove.”
“So that’s what they call it”, Joseph hummed. “Thank you for the proper name. Maybe now I can get Pyromaniac to do it automatically.”
“Corporal, not only does it further destabilize an already unstable energy wavelength, it risks detonating your dunamis while you’re attached. That means you lose one or both arms, at the least.” Aspen stepped back and crossed his arms, while Joseph groaned. “Want to tell me why?”
“Have you ever been up against someone and no matter what you do, or how you do it, that someone is so powerful that you’ll still lose?” Joseph asked.
“My older brother”, Aspen replied.
“Not the answer I wanted to hear”, Joseph replied.
“He’s in a Guild”, Aspen furthered.
“Is his name ‘Drake’ too?” Joseph humphed.
“The Earth-movers’ Guilds are in my blood, but since I was a natural, my parents were okay with me joining ARK. They reasoned that I would be strongly compatible with an earth-moving dunamis and could enact similar feats to my brother. Even with my dunamis, no matter how much we spar, he always wins by a large margin.”
“Just burn his toys”, Joseph murmured.
“Why does it matter?” Aspen inquired.
“The retired lieutenant commander thrashed me hard”, Joseph humphed. “I think I could’ve worn him out, but then there was this stupid eagle…” Joseph looked skyward. “It was only one volley, but I figured out quickly that anything I threw at her was like…a breath against a hurricane. The only reason she didn’t annihilate me was because Drake talked some Guild mumbo-jumbo, and she apparently is friends with the commander; but Drake was frightened, and James was startled, and I hid it, but I was terrified. I could’ve died, and it wouldn’t have mattered what I could muster, she still would’ve vaporized me.”
“That’s life”, Aspen replied.
“That’s life?” Joseph scoffed.
“You shouldn’t worry too much about strength; ARK is designed specifically to not have a reliance on individual strength. The physical training is for healthy upkeep and self-defense, and our dunameis are primarily intended not for offensive battle, but as tools.”
“Okay, fine”, Joseph groaned. “Say I’m ever defending myself or someone else, or trying to stop some natural disaster—what do I do if I know I’m nearing my limit and still nowhere near victory?”
“Get to your limit; give your best”, Aspen replied.
“And then?” Joseph asked.
“Acknowledge that you’ve given your best and hope you’ve made enough of a dent to protect whomever you’re trying to protect, or made enough of a difference in the world to not die in vain.” Joseph groaned and looked away. “Everyone has limits, and everyone has an opponent who could defeat them, either by strength alone or by the circumstances of battle. Some foes might acknowledge your effort and feel honor-bound to let you live; some might just kill you. We’re only supposed to give our all, regardless of the outcome. Does that help?”
“Well, it’s all I have”, Aspen replied.
“Great”, Joseph mumbled as he turned to the quarry. He stopped but looked to the captain. “Permission to recommence my futile task?”
“If you cease any efforts to reduplicate”, Aspen replied. Joseph inhaled, but the captain raised his hand. “I know when you’re lying. If your arm is blown off, I will show you no pity; understood, corporal?”
“Aye, captain”, Joseph replied as he started into the quarry.